The teenage king of Tibet, known among his friends as Trichen recently visited the U.S. to show a new documentary he directed, and to scout for colleges. Elle Reeve talks to the young monarch.
Some teenagers grow up faster than others, learning at an early age to take care of siblings or help their parents pay the bills.
But only one teen bears the responsibility of representing a thousand-year-old dynasty.
Namgyal Wangchuk Lhagyari Trichen—or Trichen as the King of Tibet is known among friends—was only 12 when the Dalai Lama crowned him in 2004. He is the single descendant of the first Dharma King of Tibet, who introduced Buddhism to his country in the seventh century, a time when the nation stretched from Burma to Afghanistan.
Despite this load, at 17, Trichen behaves like a regular teenager. He likes Green Day and videogames. He loves soccer and wishes he could watch the World Cup nonstop. His life is remarkably simple; he has no servants or any kind of royal extravagancies. He doesn’t live in a palace but in exile, and, in any event, the royal palace in Tibet was destroyed fighting in 1959 between Tibetan rebels and Chinese occupying forces. If the crown weighs him down, he doesn’t show it.
Despite this load, at 17, Trichen behaves like a regular teenager. He likes Green Day and videogames. He loves soccer and wishes he could watch the World Cup nonstop.
“In Tibet there is respect for my family and me but I live like other Tibetan kids, other students,” says Trichen, who directed the documentary under the guidance of filmmaker Dirk Simon. “My friends treat me like a real friend, not a king.”
Other students, though, probably don’t get their college advice from the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama advised Trichen to get a modern education, and the king wants to apply to a U.S. college to study history, although he worries that college here will be “really hard.”
He wants to study history—both modern and Tibetan—and eventually go back to Tibet to work. “I have to study a lot, and gain lots of knowledge [to] serve my community better.”
The new documentary My Country Is Tibet, which was produced with the support of the nonprofit BYKids, follows Trichen as he struggles to live up to the expectations of his heritage while living like an average kid in a Tibetan refugee community in India.
After the documentary’s premiere May 20, Trichen and producer Holly Carter, who founded BYKids, spent a few weeks in New York City, showing the film at a dozen high schools, where Trichen talked to students his age about his culture and life as a young king.
When Trichen speaks to American students, he asks them to raise their hands if they’ve heard of the Dalai Lama. Several students usually do, because His Holiness, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, has visited the U.S. many times. But when he asks the kids to raise their hands if they’ve heard of Tibet, few do. “One girl said, ‘Where’s Tibet?’” Trichen recalls, adding that he hopes he can educate more Americans about Tibet, and about what’s happening to his people.
“I really want them to see this movie and know a reality of the Tibetan people.”
After New York, they went to Washington, D.C. to show the movie at Silverdocs, a documentary festival. The promotional tour for the documentary was the king’s first visit outside India, and during the making of the movie, and their subsequent road trip together, Carter became taken with the young king. “Isn’t he just so charming?” Carter says.
“My family name brings different responsibilities,” he continues. “My father spent his whole life working for his nation… [and] he fought for Tibet against China.”
When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, the Tibetans resisted, and thousands of monasteries were destroyed. During the fighting, the Dalai Lama went into exile while Trichen’s father, the then-king, was imprisoned—for two decades. After his release, the king moved his family to Dehradun, India, the heart of the Tibetan refugee community.
The Tibetans continue to fear crackdowns from the Chinese, and Trichen, who was born in exile, has never visited his homeland.
When he was younger, he felt burdened by the legacy he had to carry. “I thought, ‘It’s a burden, it’s boring!’” he says. “But now I understand the meaning of it.”
Elspeth Reeve is a writer living in New York. She has written for Time, New York, and The New Republic.